You would think, wouldn’t you, that after my last run-in with Tolstoy over “The Kreutzer Sonata” I would want to give a little time and space before returning to his work. However, I have been determined to read more of his shorter works (although they’re not really anthologised in a logical way) and in particular to finish the collection Mr. Kaggsy gave me, as well as two pretty review copies from the lovely people at Alma Classics. And here is a picture of what is going to feature in this post:

I was reading some of these whilst suffering with a major sinus infection, so perhaps they weren’t the most obvious choice. Nevertheless I enjoyed these a lot more than Kreutzer (although they aren’t without their problems); and frankly, as I commented on Twitter, *any* Tolstoy other than Kreutzer is going to be a doddle.

I’m going to tackle “The Forged Coupon” first, as it kind of stands to one side in its subject matter and is an intriguing piece of Tolstoy’s short work. Published in 1911, after the author’s death, it was actually written in the period of 1880 to 1904 – so quite a long time for a short book. Structurally, and in its content, it’s in some ways unlike anything else I’ve read by the author, as it tackles a kind of butterfly effect of events that are all triggered by a young student falsifying a bank bond (the coupon of the title) and cashing it in. This has a catastrophic knock-on effect, as we follow a chain reaction which impacts on any number of peasants who lose jobs, turn to crime, commit murders and in many cases end up jail – all because of one seemingly small crime. The narrative is economic and cleverly follows each person affected, showing how their lives intertwine and are disrupted by the one immoral act. The book is split into two parts, and the second (shorter) of these two shows some of the protagonists in prison, attempting to come to terms with their crimes and in many cases finding God.

The story does, of course, have a didactic point as by this time in his life Tolstoy was limbering up to be the towering moralist he eventually became. But despite this, the book is entertaining and clever, showing how our lives *do* intertwine and how what we do affects others. There isn’t the hysteria directed at women in some of his other works, there is dry humour and the book is more Dostoevksian or Gogolian in its effect than what you might describe as typically Tolstoyan. I can’t quite explain that any more than to say that at points I felt as if I was reading Dostoevsky and not Tolstoy!

While lying in the ditch, Stepan could see continually before him the meek, thin, frightened face of Marya Semyonovna and hear her words – “You can’t do that “– in her own peculiar, lisping, piteous voice. And again Stepan would go through all he had done to her. And he would become terrified and close his eyes, and rock his hairy head to shake these thoughts and memories out of it. And for a moment he would be free of the memories, but in their place would come to him first one, then a second black figure, and after the second would follow still more black figures with red eyes, pulling faces and all saying the same thing: “You did away with her – do away with yourself as well, or else we’ll give you no rest. “And he would open his eyes, and again he could see her and hear her voice, and he would start feeling pity for her, and revulsion and terror at himself. And again he would close his eyes, and again… the black figures.

“The Forged Coupon” is published by Alma, and so has all the nice extras that so often come with their books (photographs, supporting material, notes). It’s translated and introduced by Hugh Aplin (whose work I always find reliable), and so this one is definitely recommended as a great way to read Tolstoy’s shorter works and see where his thinking was going later in life.

The other two Tolstoy works I tackled actually feature in two volumes, and there’s a reason for that…. The last story in the Wordsworth Classics collection is “The Devil”, and this is also one of the “Three Novellas” volume from Alma. However, the Wordworth has the title character as Eugene, whereas the Alma has him as Yevgeny. Pedant that I am, I am very uncomfortable with a Russian called Eugene (I had the same problem with character name translation during “War and Peace” – Andrey as Andrew!); so I switched to reading the Alma version, and was very happy with the translations featured here by Kyril Zinovieff (“A Landowner’s Morning”) and April FitzLyon (“The Devil”). The third story, “Family Happiness”, is one I’ve already covered here.

“A Landowner’s Morning” is from 1852, so early in Tolstoy’s career and a time when serfdom in Russia had not yet been abolished. And indeed, the plight of the serfs is the subject of the story, with the central young landowner (based apparently on the author himself) doing the rounds of many of his peasants to see about helping, educating and improving them and their lot. Alas, it doesn’t quite work out for young Nekhylyudov, who meets obstacles wherever he goes, and it seems the serfs do not want his help but only to be left along to go about their lives. Apparently Tolstoy was not in favour of educating the peasants, instead being of the opinion that all they needed was to be kept in thrall and given a bit more help. As serfdom was basically slavery, that’s not a comfortable message… 😦

The final story I’m going to write about here is a very different kind of work: “The Devil” was again published in 1911 and belongs to the later period of works like Kreutzer. And once again, Tolstoy draws on his life for his fiction, telling the story of a young landowner who takes over the family estate to try to rebuild it and save it from financial collapse. Yevgeny has his *needs* (i.e. he has a sex drive); and it’s harder to satisfy these needs out in the country where everything is more noticeable. An enforced period of continence sends him a bit crazy, so he arranges for a local peasant woman, Stepanida, to be sent to him. The latter is willing, and their meetings become more of a liaison, although the impression is that Stepanida is not desperately bothered, although Yevgeny is well and truly hooked. However, he needs to marry and settle down, and does so to the pale and beautiful Liza who brings money to the marriage. Liza is a lot more fragile than a peasant woman; she loses their first child, and the second is touch and go. However, Stepanida is still there in the background and when their paths cross, she still exerts a strong and magetic force which Yevgeny seems unable to resist. Tolstoy gives two alternative endings, neither of which I would have chosen – and it seems he is *still* struggling to cope with the concept of the animal passions…

Although “The Devil” is much less inflammatory than Kreutzer, it still has its problems. The devil of the title is Stepanida, and she’s portrayed as a constant temptation. Well, excuse me, but I think it takes two to tango, and if Yevgeny can’t control himself it’s his problem and not Stepanida’s. We are supposed to sympathise with the poor man, a slave to his urges, entrapped by a woman and unable to break free. Oh really – so it’s all the woman’s fault, is it? (sounds like victim blaming if I ever heard it…) The women in “The Devils unfortunately exemplify that old ‘Madonna/Whore’ cliche – apparently we all have to be either amoral, highly sexed and healthy like Stepanida or pale, frail and spiritual like Liza – there’s no middle ground. This is of course ridiculous…

It’s difficult for me, morally bruised as I am by Kreutzer, to approach Tolstoy’s shorter works entirely objectively; perhaps shouldn’t be reading these with such a sharp feminist eye, but if he’s going to come the moral high horse I don’t see there’s an alternative. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy these works, because I did – the writing was evocative and interesting, and he conjured up rural Russian quite brilliantly. The difficulty is that he so often lets the moraliser in him become more important than the storyteller, which is a shame, because when you’re reading a book with the epic sweep of “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina” the story takes centre stage and that’s how it should be.

Nevertheless, this *was* a particularly fascinating selection of stories to read and think about. I’ve previous read other shorts by Tolstoy (he was one of the Penguin Little Black Classics) and part of me really wishes there was some kind of collected Tolstoy in English – perhaps volumes with all of his non-fiction works and one with his short stories in some kind of chronological order (the pedant in me is winning out here). Despite my problems and caveats, he *is* an important writer and I still have some of the longer works unread. I reckon, however, I *will* need to be morally strong and tolerant when I tackle even more Tolstoy! ;D

Many thanks to Alma Classics for providing review copies of “The Forged Coupon” and “Three Novellas” – much appreciated!